Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have met for talks about boosting ties between their countries – an encounter that follows a major setback for Moscow on the battlefield in Ukraine.
The two leaders met in Uzbekistan on the sidelines of the eight-nation Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), a security alliance created as a counterweight to US influence that also includes India, Pakistan and four ex-Soviet nations in Central Asia.
Along with Russian’s attack on Ukraine, backdropping the summit are the brief eruption not far from the event site of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as strains in China’s relations with Washington, Europe, Japan and India due to disputes over technology, security and territory.
Speaking at the start of his one-on-one talks with Mr Xi, Mr Putin blasted what he described as an “ugly” effort by the United States and its allies to maintain their perceived global domination.
“Attempts to create a unipolar world have recently taken an absolutely ugly shape. They are absolutely unacceptable for the vast majority of countries on the globe,” the Russian President said in opening remarks.
Mr Xi was more careful, saying that together with Russia, China was ready to “set an example of a responsible world power and to play a leading role to take the rapidly changing world on a track of sustainable and positive development”.
The SCO summit in the ancient city of Samarkand is part of Mr Xi’s first foreign trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic two-and-a-half years ago, underscoring Beijing’s desire to assert itself as a regional power.
The presidents’ meeting came after Russia was forced to pull back its forces from large swaths of north-east Ukraine last week amid a swift Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Ukraine regaining control of several Russian-occupied villages and cities represented Moscow’s largest setback since its forces had to retreat from areas near the Ukrainian capital early in the war.
Mr Xi’s government, which said it had a “no-limits” friendship with Moscow before the invasion of Ukraine in late February, has refused to criticise Russia’s military actions.
Beijing and India are buying more Russian oil and gas, which helps Moscow offset the impact of Western sanctions imposed over the invasion.
“We highly appreciate the well-balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” Mr Putin said at the start of his talks with Mr Xi.
Russia, in turn, has strongly backed China amid tensions with the US that followed a recent visit to Taiwan by US house speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“We condemn the provocations of the US and its satellites in the Taiwan Strait,” Mr Putin told Mr Xi.
On Thursday, Mr Putin also met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whose country is on track to join the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
Mr Raisi said Moscow and Tehran were finalising a major treaty that would bring their relations to a “strategic level”.
He and Mr Putin both criticised the US at the start of their meeting.
Mr Raisi accused the US of breaching its obligations under Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
Mr Putin gibed American officials, saying: “They are masters of their word – they give it and then take it back whenever they want.”
The Russian leader also held meetings with Central Asian leaders and planned to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday.
There was no indication whether Mr Modi might meet Mr Xi.
Relations between India and China are strained due to clashes between the countries’ soldiers from a border dispute involving a remote area of the Himalayas.
Mr Putin is also scheduled to meet one-on-one with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.
Turkey and Azerbaijan have the status of “dialogue partners” with the SCO.
Earlier this week, Azerbaijan and Armenia engaged in cross-border shelling that killed 176 troops on both sides, marking the most serious hostilities in nearly two years between the decades-long adversaries.
The fighting has put Moscow, which has tried to maintain close ties with both countries, in a precarious position.
Mr Putin’s meeting with Mr Erdogan will be closely watched for their statements on Ukraine and a July deal brokered by Turkey and the UN to clear the way for exports of grain and other agricultural products that were stuck at Ukraine’s Black Sea ports after the Russian invasion.
The Chinese leader is promoting a “Global Security Initiative” announced in April following the formation of the Quad by Washington, Japan, Australia and India in response to Beijing’s more assertive foreign policy.
Mr Xi has given few details, but US officials complain it echoes Russian arguments in support of Moscow’s attack on Ukraine.
The region is part of China’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to expand trade by building ports, railways and other infrastructure across an arc of dozens of countries from the South Pacific through Asia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
On Thursday, Mr Xi met with President Sadyr Zhaparov of Kyrgyzstan and said Beijing supports the “early operation” of a planned railway linking China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the Chinese foreign ministry said.
China’s economic inroads into Central Asia have fuelled unease in Russia, which sees the region as its sphere of influence.
Mr Xi made a one-day visit on Wednesday to Kazakhstan en route to Uzbekistan.
Pope Francis was in Kazakhstan, but they did not meet.